Koutarou doesn’t tend to think a lot about the fact that he’s an owl shifter. A great horned owl shifter, to be exact—his father always tells him to take pride in it, and Koutarou does, but it’s still not something he actually thinks about a lot.
He comes from a family of shifters—his mother, his sisters, his father, his grandparents and aunts and uncles, they’re all great horned owl shifters, with only one exception.
It’s not that unusual: shifters usually tend to stick to themselves, a little bit. Probably because it’s easier to interact with other shifters; they get your mannerisms a lot more. It’s why there’s only one person in Koutarou’s immediate family who is not a great horned owl shifter: his uncle Eiko, the husband of his mother’s sister. He’s a barn owl shifter, though, and therefore similar enough that nobody really bats an eye at him.
Koutarou himself doesn’t care all that much about surrounding himself with other owl shifters. He has, in fact, not one single owl shifter in his friend group. Quite the contrary: the majority of his friends are simply human, with the exception of Kuroo and Kenma, and Kuroo and Kenma are both cat shifters. His father had comically puffed up, the first time he’d seen Kuroo.
Kuroo is Koutarou’s best friend, though, and they get along splendidly. They spend a lot of their free time together; the fact that they’re completely different shifters does not intrude on their friendship in the slightest.
It’s probably why Koutarou tends to forget that he’s an owl shifter, and doesn’t much think about it during every-day life: his antics are different from his friends’, sure, but they’ve never made him feel weird about it; and all of his friends are a little different, in their own way. What kind of shifter he is doesn’t factor in too much in that, and none of his friends consider it to be too important.
There really isn’t any good reason to spend any amount of time thinking about it.
This changes when he meets Akaashi Keiji.
Koutarou is in the gymnasium, excited for another volleyball practice and even more excited to meet all the new first years who are going to be joining the volleyball club. He is rather extroverted—comically so for an owl shifter—and he loves meeting new people.
He hopes the new first years are going to be nice and energetic and good at volleyball; he really, really can’t wait to meet them.
He’s excitedly jumping up and down, his eyes glued to the gymnasium door, when said door opens and a slender boy with pale skin and mussed up black hair walks into the room.
Koutarou doesn’t know why, but he is immediately captivated, his eyes drawn to the newcomer like a moth to a flame. He looks—stares—at him, and then the boy looks up and their eyes meet. The boys’ eyes are grey-blue and beautiful; Koutarou’s sharpened owl eyes zero in on them, and suddenly, there is a pressure on his chest; before Koutarou can even examine what this pressure means, he is already opening his mouth and letting out a hoot. Loudly.
His mouth snaps shut again and he can feel his entire face flood crimson.
He stares at the boy in mortification. The boy stares back with an incredible amount of confusion painted on his face.
Koutarou wants to sink into the ground.
This boy is the prettiest person he’s ever seen, and Koutarou is maybe not the most thoughtful and introspective owl shifter, but he does have a grasp on his instincts, usually, and he knows exactly what his reaction means, now that he’s hooted at the boy.
Something in Koutarou is saying very adamantly that he has just found his mate.
And Koutarou has just hooted at him. As in, opened his mouth and let out a traditional great horned owl courting call. In the middle of the gymnasium. Surrounded by the rest of this volleyball team.
This is bad.
This is bad based simply on the fact that great horned owls mate for life. Humans very much don’t. And Koutarou just knows, in this very moment, that this is his person, that he wants to mate with this boy and spend the rest of his life with him, and he doesn’t even know his name.
And the first impression this boy has of him is Koutarou hooting at him.
On the bright side—the only bright side to this situation—the boy probably has no idea what Koutarou’s call means, and therefore has no idea just how badly Koutarou has embarrassed himself by not having a grasp on his instincts; there is a time and place for everything, even courting calls, and this is decidedly not it.
The boy in all probability not knowing what Koutarou’s call means is the one and only thing Koutarou can—and will—cling to; there are many different owl shifters, and even if it is probably pretty obvious to him now that Koutarou is an owl shifter, that doesn’t mean he knows which one; and every type of owl shifter has their own calls, their own meanings. This means that if the boy wasn’t very invested in owls and their calls before, he, most probably, does not know the meaning of this one, however distinct it may be.
Still, the fact that Koutarou hooted at a new member of their volleyball team is embarrassing enough even without the added context of him letting out a mating call.
With the added context, though—
It is just Koutarou’s luck, really, that the first time he loses control over his instincts that badly, he lets out a call that symbolises he wants to court a—or rather: this—stranger and spend the rest of his life with him.
Koutarou is still flushed red when he makes his way over to the boy. He is determined, now, to find out who he is and make a better second impression.
The boy is even prettier up close: his hair looks like it has come right out of a shampoo ad, his skin is completely blemish-free and looks really, really soft, and his eyes are unexpectedly piercing. Koutarou feels the distinct desire to simply let himself sink into them.
He is also not that much shorter than Koutarou, but considerably slimmer, and this, too, evokes feelings in Koutarou; he suddenly feels the incredibly strong urge to wrap himself around him, protectively, possessively. He slightly shakes his head, bans the thoughts of nesting and protective behaviour, and instead channels his excitement about meeting the new member of Fukurodani’s volleyball team.
“Hey hey hey!” he says, “I’m Bokuto Koutarou!” You can call me Koutarou, he wants to add, but it seems a little too forward.
Koutarou isn’t entirely sure what is appropriate behaviour around someone you’re courting or planning to court—he probably should have listened to his grandmother more when she was telling him about these things, but he always thought he’d still have more time, that he’d focus on volleyball first and then try to find his mate after.
He shakes that train of thought as well; focuses on the situation at hand.
“I’m a wing spiker and going to be the next ace!” he says, putting all of his confidence into this voice. Impressing his mate is good, at least of this he is pretty sure. Well, his potential mate, not mate. He still doesn’t even know the boy’s name; he shouldn’t get ahead of himself here. It’s just that he knows, looking into this boy’s eyes: this is it for him.
“Akaashi Keiji. Nice to meet you, Bokuto-san.”
Koutarou’s brain short-circuits for a minute. He nearly blurts out ‘I think Bokuto Keiji would sound really good’ before he gets a grip on himself. This is not the time. It’s just that Akaashi’s voice does things to him; it’s beautiful and soft and silky, and Koutarou wants to drown in it. He wants to hear Akaashi say his name again and again. He wants to say Akaashi’s name, and then do it again and again. He wants to scribble hearts with ‘Bokuto Keiji’ and ‘Akaashi Koutarou’ all over his school notes.
He should probably calm down.
“Hi Akaashi!” he says instead, grinning at him excitedly. He’s stupidly proud of himself for not saying something like ‘I may be an owl, but you must be an angel’.
He really needs to calm down.
Akaashi gives him a tiny smile, just a slight uptick of the corners of his mouth, and Koutarou melts. He is decidedly not calming down. He can barely suppress the urge to hoot at Akaashi again.
This is it, then. He is going to do this properly. As soon as he gets home, he is going to ask his grandmother to tell him everything she knows about courting, and then he is going to court Akaashi the best anyone has ever courted anyone else.
Horned owl courting usually takes place over the span of six weeks, he knows this much.
In six weeks, Akaashi is going to be head over heels in love with Koutarou. He will make that happen. He has to make it happen.
Because he’s kind of already head over heels for Akaashi.
Koutarou goes home and immediately does his research. This consists mostly of asking his oldest sister, Aimi, to tell him everything she knows, since she just mated last year and the memory should still be fresh in her mind. Koutarou’s grandmother is busy, but he will make sure to call her later and drown her in a sea of questions as well; he needs as much information as he can get, after all.
He needs to make this perfect.
Akaashi is the prettiest person he has ever seen in his entire life, he has a voice so beautiful it could make angels weep, and with the piercing look in his eyes, Koutarou is already certain that he’s also incredibly intelligent. In short: he’s as close to perfection as it’s humanly possible, and he deserves nothing less than the perfect courting.
Koutarou is going to woo him so hard he will swoon.
Great horned owl shifter courting follows a very clear pattern of courting hoots and food-gifting, for the most part. At least in the early stages, those are the two big and important parts to get right. In this case, though, Koutarou is going to have to cut the hooting part out; mainly because humans usually don’t find owl hooting very endearing, but also because he and Akaashi go to the same school and are going to see each other at school, and Koutarou can’t just hoot at Akaashi at school.
He’d never live it down if he performed a mating call during volleyball training. Another one, that is. In fact, he’s pretty sure Shirofuku is already planning to use the first incident as teasing material for the rest of the year.
Plus, humans aren’t actually good at differentiating between different owl calls; they lack an owl’s hearing and intrinsic knowledge, an owl’s instincts. Akaashi might not even realise that Koutarou is using a mating call; he might mistake it for a different call altogether.
So no hooting at Akaashi.
Food-gifts, instead. They are more obvious, too, at least to a human; Koutarou is sure that where a mating call might confuse Akaashi, he is going to realise that he is being courted as soon as Koutarou starts bringing him food.
After food gifts come the nest-making and courting dance.
The nest is something you prepare in the background. You don’t show your courted the nest until it’s ready and until the right time has come. A nest needs to be perfect. A nest can’t be shown before the courting dance is performed, before your courted has given you an answer, and when you show it, everything about it has to be exactly right.
While actual great horned owls tend to just use abandoned nests or steal nests in nature, great horned owl shifters don’t do that; they prepare a comfortable nest, one that makes their intentions to provide obvious, to be presented after the courting dance, after the courted party has agreed to the mating; it’s a important part of starting life together, after the courting, of making your intentions to be the best possible partner clear.
But before he can show Akaashi a nest he has yet to build, Koutarou is going to perfect his courting dance, of course, to make sure Akaashi has no choice but to say yes when he sees Koutarou in his owl form, performing, for him.
He will practice the courting dance, and build the perfect nest for Akaashi, and woo Akaashi with food gifts and caring gestures, and Akaashi will have no choice but to fall in love with Koutarou. And then Koutarou will spend the rest of his life making Akaashi as happy as possible to ensure he’ll never want to leave, despite the fact humans don’t tend to mate for life.
It’s not that complicated, really.
He simply can’t make a single mistake.
It’s not as simple as he thought. Koutarou realises this the following day.
Akaashi walks into the gym during morning practice, looking tired and a little dishevelled and entirely perfect, and Koutarou feels the insanely strong urge to hoot at him at full volume. It’s a natural instinct; usually, their mating calls are how great horned owls and great horned owl shifters find their mates and express their interest. They call for a mate, until someone hears their call and finds it alluring enough to answer.
Akaashi isn’t an owl, though.
And he’s here for volleyball practice, not to be hooted at.
It’s a good thing Koutarou brought food.
Maybe it is a little bit presumptuous; apart from his awkward introduction yesterday, they have yet to have a single conversation.
But Koutarou knows he wants to court Akaashi, and the sooner he starts, the better. In fact, it’s not that unusual for great horned owl shifters to start courting someone they don’t yet know very well, going simply off instinct. Usually, the courted are other owl shifters, but Koutarou personally is of the opinion that an exception can be made for Akaashi.
He keeps himself together all throughout volleyball practice—apart from yelling over at Akaashi and congratulating him every time he sets nicely, that is.
Akaashi is a good setter, very analytical, and Koutarou can’t help it; he is already thinking about having Akaashi set for him for the rest of his life—them joining the pro league together one day, Akaashi always by his side, Akaashi setting beautiful sets for him and Koutarou spiking and the commentators loudly, excitedly, talking about the best spiker-setter duo in the league, the Bokuto husbands—he may be getting ahead of himself again.
So he keeps himself mostly together all throughout volleyball practice.
He personally thinks he is doing a commendable job, considering how good Akaashi looks, and considering the fact that he looks even better when playing volleyball. Considering how perfect he’d look with Koutarou’s last name on his back—
Mostly together, as he said.
After practice, though, all bets are off, and Koutarou bounds over to Akaashi, feeling over-excited and happy. He still has so much energy coursing through him, and just seeing Akaashi doubles it, makes him feel like he could run laps around him, scream in excitement. He kind of wants to jump up and down, or shift and spread his wings and soar through the sky, just to perch on top of the school building and hoot, loudly, for Akaashi—
He shuts that train of thought down, and instead comes to a halt in front of Akaashi, grinning excitedly at him.
“Akaashi!” he says. Or shouts. He’s not sure; he knows his voice tends to get very loud when he’s excited because plenty of people have told him this, but he always has a hard time discerning the volume of his voice himself.
“Bokuto-san,” Akaashi says, his voice wrapping smoothly and wonderfully around the syllables of Koutarou’s name, inclining his head a little. Koutarou kind of desperately wants him to say his given name.
“This is for you!” Koutarou says—or shouts—and thrusts a meat bun towards Akaashi. Akaashi looks at it quizzically. “For energy!” Koutarou tells him proudly. “So you have a lot of energy to set really well!”
He had thought a lot about what food to get Akaashi, and in the end he’d decided that something like this, something good and proper that refills Akaashi’s energy reserves, is just the right thing. He almost made Akaashi a bento box, but then he remembered that he doesn’t actually know how to cook. It also might be a little too forward for the first day of courtship.
Koutarou can work up to it, though! And if he waits a little, he can perfect his cooking and bento-making skills and then present Akaashi with the perfect bento box!
For now, though, store-bought meat buns will have to do; it’s not the ideal way to start gift-giving, but it is a start, and probably not as overwhelming as giving Akaashi an entire self-made bento on the first day of courting. Plus, Koutarou has an entire six weeks to get this exactly right.
(And his mother might or might not have laughed at him fondly when he told her he needed to learn how to cook right away the prior evening.)
“That’s very nice of you, Bokuto-san,” Akaashi says. There’s no intonation in his voice, nothing that lets Koutarou know what he’s actually thinking, and he’s still looking at him quizzically. But he takes the bun, and he said it’s nice, and so Koutarou feels really good and successful about this. He returns to his sports bag with a grin on his face. He feels like if he were to look at himself, he would find himself to be glowing; feels warm and proud and happy.
He gave Akaashi the first courtship gift and Akaashi accepted it! It can only get better from here on out.
Koutarou’s desire to hoot at Akaashi does not dissipate at all during the day. It doesn’t even matter that Akaashi isn’t in the same classes as Koutarou, since he’s a year below him. He is in the same building, after all, well within hearing range, even as a human. And Koutarou’s instincts aren’t that refined; for the most part, they tell him to let out mating calls as often as possible, just so Akaashi can hear them and respond to them. To let them out even when he isn’t somewhere close, just in case Akaashi is in the neighbourhood and hears them.
So classes are … difficult.
Koutarou has a hard time focusing on things that aren’t volleyball in general; his mind tends to feel under-stimulated, and as a result jumps from distraction to distraction, just to find something worth focusing on, which makes concentrating in class hard on the best of days.
Now, however, with the added distraction of Akaashi, something which apparently does provide his brain with enough stimulation? It’s nearly impossible for Koutarou to pick up on anything that his teachers are telling him.
He keeps bouncing his legs, his gaze wandering, mind focused solely on suppressing the urge to let out loud mating calls.
In general, schools are good about being inclusive for different shifters and adhering to their needs; some shifters simply function differently in any environment, need different stimuli or have characteristic traits that need to be accommodated for.
Most reptile shifters, for example, are only able to be awake and focus in certain temperatures, and sheep shifters have been known to get restless and uncomfortable when there are no other sheep shifters around, making it impossible for them to concentrate and have a constructive learning experience.
Most schools even offer scratching boards to cat shifters, and tanks for fish shifters, in case they need to get out of their human skin for a while.
Koutarou once witnessed a dog shifter ripping half their classroom apart to chase after a squirrel that had made the mistake of wandering into said classroom during lunch break, and the school was surprisingly nice about it.
All of that doesn’t mean, however, that his teachers wouldn’t be incredibly annoyed with him if he just started perching on his desk and hooting for Akaashi at top volume.
It doesn’t help that he is currently the only shifter in his class and his teacher isn’t a shifter either; there is a good chance she’d have a grand total of zero understanding for him.
Not to mention that it would be incredibly humiliating. Most shifters have their courting behaviour under control, after all. His sister did not mention being this distracted during her courtship.
All he can do is try his best to keep himself under control.
Afternoon practice arrives and Koutarou takes one look at Akaashi, who looks even more tired and not very impressed with having a long day of classes behind him, and nearly hoots right into his face, again. He also nearly starts fluffing himself up and nearly starts a mating dance, which would not only be even more humiliating than a mating call, but also just completely wrong at this point in their courtship. A mating dance happens at the very end of a courtship, and is traditionally done in owl form.
It’s just that looking at Akaashi, who seems exhausted and done and perfect in every conceivable way, all of Koutarou’s instincts are going haywire, and he wants nothing more than for Akaashi to be his mate already.
It’s not the right time for that, though, this early into their courtship.
Instead, Koutarou tries to focus on practice. It works—somewhat.
He keeps reminding himself that he wants to impress Akaashi, needs to show him that he’s a good choice, strong and capable of providing for a mate, and as long as Akaashi is looking at him, that works: Koutarou feels energetic and hits all of his spikes with even more power than usual, putting his all into every single move he does.
As soon as Akaashi is not looking at him, though—well. Koutarou has always had a penchant for mood-swings, a tendency to get dejected and unhappy really easily, and so when he looks over to where Akaashi is after a particularly good spike and finds Akaashi focusing on training his receives instead, Koutarou’s mood kind of. Drops.
It’s just that he wants Akaashi to pay attention to him, to look at him, see how good and strong and powerful Koutarou is.
He wants Akaashi’s attention to be caught by Koutarou and nobody else, the way Koutarou’s attention has been on Akaashi since he first laid eyes on him.
And he knows it’s unreasonable to want all of Akaashi’s attention, all of the time, but Koutarou just hit a really good spike, and Akaashi isn’t looking at him, and that means Koutarou wasn’t able to show him what a good, strong mate he could make, and he wants that, needs Akaashi to see and understand and choose him—it’s a lot, suddenly, all at once, and he just feels dejected and unhappy.
After that, things just get worse.
He knows he is making a bad impression on Akaashi, but that just makes his mood sink further, no matter how hard his teammates try to get it back up, and by the time practice ends, Koutarou feels like he could cry with the amount of frustration bubbling up in him.
It’s all too much, and he hates this, hates that on the very first day of his courtship he showed the worst of himself to Akaashi, and who would want to mate with someone like him?
He has a hard time getting changed, tries to focus on pulling his street-clothes on and finds his movements sluggish and his mind hazy.
He would rather just shift into an owl, fly for a while, sit miserably on a tree branch and stare into the distance for a few hours, clear his head that way. But he needs to get changed and take his gym bag and school bag home with him; it’s late, and they want to lock up, and they can’t do that if Koutarou is refusing to get changed, leaving his stuff here instead and going for a flight just to sulk.
So he gets changed, albeit slowly, and entirely sure that his face looks as dejected as he’s feeling.
He hates that he can’t make a good impression on Akaashi at the moment, hates that he’s probably thrown away all of his chances now.
And then he hears a gentle, albeit bored-sounding, “Bokuto-san” and looks up, just to see Akaashi standing in front of him.
“Akaashi?” he says, his voice low, glum, disheartened.
“You did well in the first quarter of practice,” Akaashi says, and Koutarou’s mouth falls open. “Excuse me if I’m overstepping my boundaries here, but it looks like you are unhappy with your performance today, and while you certainly didn’t show as much enthusiasm in the later part of practice, it’s clear that you’re a good and strong player when you’re concentrated.”
Koutarou stares at him. Then, slowly, he feels a grin pull at his lips, his eyes lighting up; warmth is spreading all throughout him.
“You really think so?” he asks, eagerly.
“Yes, Bokuto-san,” Akaashi says, and just like that, Koutarou’s mood is restored.
Akaashi thinks he’s a capable player. Akaashi thinks he did well at the start of their practice. Akaashi spent time looking at him, after all, and what he saw wasn’t entirely off-putting to him, and maybe Koutarou has a chance of proving his worth as a mate after all!
Suddenly, the day feels like a successful start to his courtship all over again.
Koutarou decides that while getting Akaashi bought food once is maybe acceptable, he henceforth needs to step up his game, and so he goes grocery shopping to get all the best possible ingredients for a good bento for Akaashi and then spends nearly three hours in the kitchen.
At the end of those three hours, he feels gloomy and disheartened again, staring at the mess all around him that certainly isn’t usable for a bento. He still has enough ingredients for another try, but—is it even worth it, trying, when he’s clearly only going to fail again?
He wants to cry.
How did he ever think he could be a good mate for Akaashi, when he can’t even prepare a nice meal for him? Clearly, Koutarou is the worst possible choice of all.
“Kou-chan?” he hears a soft voice, and looks up to see his mother step into the kitchen, smiling fondly at him.
“I just wanted to make a bento for Akaashi,” Bokuto says, feeling his lip wobble.
“Oh, darling,” she says, her voice still soft. “But you’ve never cooked before.”
Koutarou just looks at the ground. He knows that. He just wanted—he just wanted to prove his worth, show that he could provide for his mate. Apparently, he can’t.
“How about I help you, just a little bit?” his mother asks, softly.
“Then it won’t be mine anymore,” he says bitterly.
“You’ll still be the one who made it, who put time and effort into it. I’ll just guide you a little. Everyone needs guidance when first starting something—or do you want to tell me you could have started volleyball entirely without a coach?” That gets his attention. He cocks his head to the side, looks at her for a moment, and has to admit that she’s right.
“Okay,” he says, begrudgingly.
“Perfect,” she responds, and gets herself a kitchen apron. It’s her favourite one; it has a great horned owl on it and beneath it the text ‘Owl not give up’.
“So, what are we making for Akaashi?” Her eyes are soft and excited, and he’s suddenly so very, very grateful to have a mother who understands and accepts him, even when he’s in one of his moods.
His mood is now perking up again.
With his mother’s help, he’s going to make the perfect bento, he just knows it!
He presents the bento to Akaashi the next day at school, after morning practice, as he did the day prior.
“Oh,” Akaashi says, and there’s something almost shy about his voice. His ears have turned red. “You made me a bento?”
“You need all the energy to be a strong volleyball player, after all!” Koutarou says excitedly.
“Didn’t you already bring yourself a bento?” Konoha asks from next to them, and Koutarou’s heart stops for a second. What if Akaashi doesn’t have the appetite for two bentos? What if he doesn’t want Koutarou’s bento?
“More food is always better than less food,” Akaashi says, and smiles at Koutarou, a small but gut-clenchingly earnest smile, and Koutarou’s heart feels like it’s flying. “Thank you, Bokuto-san, this is very thoughtful of you.” The red of his ears now sits high on his cheeks too.
“You’re welcome!” Koutarou half-shouts in Akaashi’s pretty face. Konoha is watching them with raised eyebrows. Koutarou opts to ignore him; Konoha is not a shifter, and therefore his opinion on Koutarou’s courting does not matter.
“I hope you’ll like it!” Koutarou tells Akaashi earnestly.
“I’m sure I will, Bokuto-san,” Akaashi says. The small smile is still on his face.
Later, during afternoon practice, Koutarou can’t help but come up to Akaashi again.
“Did you like the bento?” he asks, nervous energy thrumming through him.
“It was very good, Bokuto-san, thank you,” Akaashi says and Koutarou feels his chest swell with pride. Knowing he managed to provide well for Akaashi and that Akaashi is appreciating Koutarou’s courting is a heady feeling.
And now Akaashi is well-fed and energised!
“Oh! Oh!” he says, excitedly. “You should use that extra energy to toss to me!”
“Bokuto,” Shirofuku, who seems to have caught his words, calls, “are you bribing the first year with food? Why don’t you ever bribe me with food?”
“I’m not bribing him,” Koutarou calls back, indignant. He’s courting Akaashi. There’s a difference a mile wide. “And he needs the strength!”
“I need the strength too!” Shirofuku responds.
Koutarou wants to reply something scathing, but then he looks at Akaashi and just feels happy. There is an amused look on Akaashi’s face, his lips lifted into a smile, his eyes sparkling, and Koutarou can barely suppress the urge to hoot at him, loudly. He does suppress the urge, though, because the day is going amazingly and Koutarou has everything under control.
Koutarou looks over at Shirofuku again, who’s now being laughed at by Suzumeda, and feels entirely successful.
“Come on, Bokuto-san, I will toss for you,” Akaashi says, and Koutarou nearly pumps his fist in elation.
“Yes!” he says, grinning happily.
Akaashi is going to toss for him!
Koutarou loves it when people toss for him, no matter who is doing the tossing, but there is something special about having his prospective future mate spend time with him, toss for him, be around him; and, on top of that, Koutarou can show Akaashi more of his strong spikes! Convince him with nothing but his impeccable form that they were made to play together!
Koutarou is going to be the best mate, and Akaashi will have no choice but to fall in love with him and want him.
Koutarou manages to suppress his urge to hoot at Akaashi the rest of the day, too.
It is a lot harder than he thought it would be, but he manages it amazingly, because of course he does. It’s a little bit frustrating, though—if Akaashi were another shifter, Koutarou wouldn’t have to suppress this instinct; could just be himself, court Akaashi with the entirety of great horned owl courting customs without having to be afraid it might be too much. But Akaashi is human, not another shifter, and they only see each other at school and during practice, and there is a time and place for mating calls and this certainly isn’t it.
Perhaps as a result of this, he feels the urge to finally let his desires out once he is in the sanctuary of his home, of his own room—and he does, then: shifts into an owl, feels his limbs transforming, his bones cracking and taking on new forms, until he’s not a human any longer, but a great horned owl, proudly perching on the bed. He hops up onto the windowsill, looks out the window, and then he jumps and spreads his wings and can feel himself gliding through the air.
With a few well-placed wing strokes, he gains height, and then he’s high above the city, seeing it in all its glory, feeling the wind beneath his wings and in his feathers.
There is no feeling as freeing as flying, nothing that comes close to it in human form—perhaps volleyball, jumping and spiking, is when he comes closest to it, as a human; perhaps this is why he loves volleyball so much: because it offers him a fraction of what flying is like, even in his human form.
But here, he is no human, he is an owl, and he is free in the cold night air, and now, when he loudly hoots for Akaashi, there is nothing holding him back, no reason for him not to do it—here, it is only a natural urge he is fulfilling, only another part of himself.
And so he calls for Akaashi, loudly, releasing all the pent-up tension of the day, gliding high in the sky, and feels happy and proud and free.
Koutarou gets better at cooking, preparing bentos for Akaashi (his soon-to-be-mate), as the weeks pass. He is fairly confident in his cooking skills bettering quite a lot, and his mother, too, tells him that he’s getting better. It’s exciting, to know he can prepare good meals for Akaashi now, court him properly, the way Akaashi deserves to be courted.
He only has six weeks to win Akaashi over, after all, and this means he has six weeks to absolutely perfect his homemade bentos, so Akaashi knows that Koutarou is the perfect mate, that Koutarou can provide for him.
It’s a concept that maybe shouldn’t matter as much as it does to Koutarou—they are still in high school, after all, and it is, in some way, an antiquated way of thinking—but Koutarou’s owl pride would be injured if he couldn’t prove himself the best possible mate, which includes showing Akaashi that he can provide for him, courting him with the perfect food. And so he will do just that.
He gets more creative at it too, trying to make the bentos be both nutritionally sound and cute.
The rest of the volleyball team is absolutely delighted and spare no opportunity to make their remarks; whenever Koutarou presents Akaashi with another one of his homemade bentos, there are catcalls.
Akaashi accepts all of them gracefully, with a quiet “Thank you, Bokuto-san” and a smile; his smiles are so beautiful Koutarou is sure the moon has reason to be jealous, for Akaashi would make a much greater literary thrill than it.
He can see battles fought over Akaashi’s smile, his beautiful eyes.
Battles Koutarou would all win, of course: there is no way he’d let anyone else get his mate.
He just hopes Akaashi feels the same about him as he does about Akaashi, that Akaashi feels this bond between them, this spark, even though humans don’t mate for life.
On some days, Koutarou is fairly certain that Akaashi does feel the bond: when Akaashi’s toss connects with Koutarou’s spike just right, and there is a moment where they look at each other and the air cracks with electricity; when Akaashi’s hands touch Koutarou’s just a little, his fingers sliding against Koutarou’s fleetingly, while he takes Koutarou’s home-made bentos from him; when Akaashi talks Koutarou out of slumps with a care Koutarou has never experienced before, making him feel like maybe he isn’t the biggest idiot in the world after all; when Akaashi smiles at him, sweaty, with his hair plastered against his forehead, and says, almost glowing with it, “That was such a good practice, Bokuto-san.”
Konoha and Shirofuku can joke all they want; Koutarou is going to court Akaashi—is courting Akaashi—the best any owl has ever courted a mate, and they’re going to marry and adopt at least five children and go owl-watching on their free days, and Konoha and Shirofuku will have to admit that Koutarou has been right and brilliant from the absolute beginning.
Kuroo, in true Kuroo fashion, finds the whole thing hilarious, but he’s also exceedingly supportive, brainstorming with Koutarou to help him find new recipes and listening to all of Koutarou’s courting plans.
Kuroo is a great person to talk to when it comes to this, actually, because he prepares bentos for Kenma every day, and he’s gone through the process of courting a mate, although cat shifters have completely different courting rituals. Theirs include a lot of scenting and cuddling and gifting food they have actually hunted themselves, as well as revealing the whereabouts of their favourite sunning place. There is also some yowling, and then a few other things even Kuroo was too embarrassed to go into detail about.
All in all, a different and more elaborate courting culture.
Still, Kuroo thinks it’s super cool that Koutarou is courting. He helps Koutarou come up with good recipes and has a lot of wisdom to share about being into someone who’s not as emotive as you are.
Most of his wisdom is actually, “I just cuddle Kenma until he begrudgingly smiles,” but still.
It’s nice to talk to someone about this who has more to offer than “Ooooooh you’re in looooove”. (Not that Kuroo doesn’t teasingly sing-song that too, from time to time.)
As the time passes, not only do Koutarou’s cooking skills improve, his anxiety also rises considerably.
Because horned owl shifter courting is traditionally done over a time period of six weeks.
That means he has six weeks to make Akaashi fall in love with him.
Once those six weeks are up, the courting has either been successful, or Koutarou gets rejected, and propriety implies that he cannot court Akaashi a second time. If Akaashi wants to, he can start courting Koutarou himself, once a year has passed; but Koutarou only gets this one chance to court Akaashi, and he has to succeed.
There is no universe in which Koutarou could live with having found his mate and then losing him because he wasn’t good enough at courting; no universe in which he could ever move on from someone as perfect as Akaashi.
Shirofuku tells him he’s being dramatic, but that’s because she isn’t a horned owl; she doesn’t know what it’s like to be a species that mates for life; doesn’t know what it’s like to find a person and know this is it.
Koutarou comes from an honourable Great Horned Owl shifter family, has a long lineage he is proud of; he cannot fail at courting.
This is where he envies Kuroo, a little; not only did Kuroo already successfully court Kenma, but he is a cat shifter, and they don’t put time frames on courting. He courted Kenma for a whole year before he got his reply. Granted, that mostly was due to the fact that Kuroo’s courting behaviour didn’t much differ from his usual behaviour and Kenma didn’t actually know he was being courted for eleven out of those twelve months, but Koutarou’s point still stands.
The closer the six-week-mark looms, the more pressure is on Koutarou to have everything ready; and so he begins making his nest.
It’s a long, tedious process, one that involves a lot of shopping, because none of the pillows and blankets they have at home are right, and he needs them to be perfectly plush and fluffy.
He builds a huge nest for Akaashi: one Akaashi can relax in, and hide in; one that will be the perfect spot to forget about his sorrows. To just read a book, or cuddle with Koutarou. To take a nap, or watch an anime.
He wants it to show how committed he is, to show his skills in providing the most comfortable of spaces for Akaashi. That he could do the same for a family, if Akaashi were to want one.
He builds the nest so that half of it is the perfect sunning spot, and half of it can hide Akaashi in the dark.
As the cherry on top, he adds several owl plushies and even one volleyball plush; he thinks they’re cute, and in his opinion, you can never go wrong with owls, plushies or volleyball.
He also gets Akaashi a beautiful shiny reading lamp, and a little tray so he can eat in the nest without leaving crumbs all over it.
This space is meant for Akaashi, so it needs to suit him.
Koutarou is making sure that it does.
They’re sitting on the benches in the locker room, changing, after volleyball practice, Akaashi next to Koutarou; he has already given him his bento for the day, but Akaashi is still there. He’s taken to sticking closer to Koutarou not only during practice, but also in the small timeframes they spend together before and after, lately.
Koutarou hopes it is a good sign; hopes this means that maybe Akaashi enjoys the courting, and is already considering a positive answer. He hasn’t said anything about it yet, but that isn’t necessarily an expectation Koutarou has; it is entirely in Akaashi’s rights to wait until the end of the courtship to give Koutarou an answer, and while many courted do give the courting party a verbal inclination of what their answer is probably going to be, it’s something that is entirely up to Akaashi.
“Hey, Akaashi, did you see that new volleyball documentary that was on television yesterday?” Koutarou asks him now, excitedly, because he loves talking to Akaashi, about anything and everything. Talking, even about things that aren’t just their volleyball practice, is also something they have done more of, recently, much to Koutarou’s joy.
“Not yet, Bokuto-san,” Akaashi says, and Koutarou isn’t sure if he’s imagining the fondness in his voice. “I was reading the new book I told you about?”
“Yes!” Koutarou says enthusiastically, because he remembers Akaashi talking about that book. Should he have gotten the book and read it too, he suddenly thinks? Maybe Akaashi wants a mate who shares his interests and who he can talk to about them. Maybe Koutarou should try that. But he didn’t get and read the book, so all he can do is stare at Akaashi enthusiastically while he strips off his sports shirt.
“Was it good?” he asks.
Akaashi blinks a few times. He’s staring at—Koutarou’s chest? Should he not have gotten undressed while talking to Akaashi? Is that rude? But they’re here to change into normal clothes after all!
Koutarou quickly puts on a shirt.
Akaashi clears his throat. “Yes,” he says, then. “It’s a very good book. I’m enjoying the way the author uses metaphors.”
Koutarou isn’t exactly sure what that means, but nods enthusiastically anyway. “That’s so cool, Akaashi!” he says.
Akaashi’s lips quirk into a little smile. “Indeed it is, Bokuto-san.” His voice sounds fond again. “He’s using a lot of owl metaphors. They make me think of you.”
Koutarou doesn’t need to see himself to know his eyes are sparkling. He’s feeling warm and happy and so excited he could burst with it.
“Tell me more!”
That evening, Koutarou spreads his wings and flies again, hooting into the night sky, soaring above Tokyo; he watches the buildings below, the kaleidoscope of colours the artificial lights bathe them in, and then looks up at the stars above, so far from where he is.
He feels free, like this, and suddenly, for the first time, he wishes shifting worked differently; that there was a way for him to sprout wings in his human form, just the wings.
He can imagine it vividly, now: him and Akaashi at the Fukurodani Gardens, both still in their uniforms after a long, exhausting practice; the wings sprouting from his back.
Him, holding out a hand to Akaashi. Akaashi taking his hand.
He wants nothing more than this, in this moment, here, where he’s soaring above Tokyo, the wind cold but soothing in his feathers.
If he had one wish, that would be it: that he could show Akaashi what it is like to fly. That he could take Akaashi with him, and let him experience Koutarou’s life, just for a while.
Loving you is like flying, he wants to tell Akaashi, so let me show you how you make me feel.
He can’t, but he hopes Akaashi feels this too: that being around Koutarou is like soaring through the sky, for him. That being with Koutarou comes as close to flying as a human can. (He hopes Akaashi wants to fly. He hopes Akaashi wants Koutarou to be the one who makes him feel like flying.)
As the six weeks come to a close, Koutarou’s nervousness amps up, but he tries not to let that get him down.
Akaashi likes talking to him. Akaashi always smiles and blushes a little bit when Koutarou hands him a bento. Akaashi has never once told Koutarou that he doesn’t want to be courted.
Koutarou can do this.
He plans it out; plans to ask Akaashi to go to the gardens after volleyball practice with him, and then shift there and perform his mating dance.
It doesn’t entirely pan out like that.
Instead, they’re still in the locker room, and Koutarou is standing in front of the bench, still entirely naked, about to put on his underwear, when Akaashi steps out of the showers, and that pings a response in Koutarou, deep inside his chest.
He tries to hold it down, and he manages for a minute, enough for Akaashi to put on pants; and then he can’t help it anymore.
Perhaps because female great horned owls often take a bath before answering a male’s courting calls, perhaps because Akaashi just looks incredible and Koutarou is weak for him.
In the middle of the locker room, he feels his bones transforming, hollowing out, fusing together where human bones would not be fused; feathers growing; until finally, he stands before them: a proud great horned owl, in all his glory.
He looks at Akaashi, who is staring at him, as are the rest of his teammates; none of them have ever seen him shift before. He hops onto the bench, his gaze still locked with Akaashi’s, and puffs up his chest.
He performs for Akaashi the way a great horned owl performs for their intended mate: he cocks up his tail, swells his white bib, bobs his body and head. He lets out his most beautiful hoots as he postures for Akaashi, puts his body on display, and then hops down from the bench, hopping closer, bobbing his head and body more.
This is for you, he wants to say, hoots at Akaashi, the short, melodic mating calls of a great horned owl; he looks Akaashi directly in the eyes, hoots again. This is the moment where a charmed and responsive courted owl, an accepting partner, would hoot back, would turn his singing into a duet—but Akaashi is not an owl, and suddenly Koutarou feels insecure.
What if Akaashi feels uncomfortable with this? What if he doesn’t want an owl shifter?
He slowly clicks his beak shut, and is about to let his head hang and shuffle back, when Akaashi suddenly lets out a very misformed hoot.
Koutarou stares at him, and Akaashi does it again, looking insecure in a way Koutarou has never seen him look before, his entire face a flaming red, and Koutarou can feel himself light up in happiness, enthusiastically hooting back.
Akaashi clearly has no idea what exactly he is doing; he’s not an owl, he neither has the body to form the right sounds nor the ear to hear how they should sound; but he is still doing it, responding to Koutarou’s mating calls.
Akaashi’s calls are as far from a pretty hoot as they could be.
They’re the most beautiful sound Koutarou has ever heard.
Akaashi then lowers his face a little, and says, haltingly, “Am I doing this right? I researched different owls when you hooted at me, that first time, but I wasn’t sure what kind of owl you were, and I didn’t ever think you could be courting me—I still hoped, but I didn’t think—”
Koutarou changes back then, because he can’t talk as an owl, and he needs to respond, immediately. “Yes!” he says enthusiastically. “I was courting you! I definitely was courting you! And you’re doing this exactly right! This is a yes, right? You accept my courtship?”
He’s staring at Akaashi excitedly, not even thinking about the fact he’s standing here naked, he just needs the last confirmation—
“Of course, Bokuto-san,” Akaashi says, smiling softly, almost shyly at him. He is very resolutely only looking at Koutarou’s face.
The happiness that courses through Koutarou is so strong it feels like it cannot be contained in his human shape, like the human part of him cannot possibly handle it; and so he changes back, and then, with a strong sweep of his wings to gain the needed height, hops onto Akaashi’s shoulder and fondly rubs his beak against his cheek, the way all of his instincts tell him to.
Of course, that’s the moment the rest of their teammates break their stunned silence.
“Get a room!” Konoha loudly calls, and Washio whistles loudly at them. Koutarou doesn’t care much. He has a mate. He courted Akaashi, and Akaashi said yes. Akaashi hooted for him.
Koutarou feels like the most accomplished owl in the entire world.
They’re sitting in Koutarou’s room, in the nest that Koutarou prepared for Akaashi; it takes up most of the room.
It is quiet, the only sounds coming from the hairbrush sliding through Akaashi’s black locks while Koutarou is softly brushing his hair. Preening is important for mated great horned owls; Akaashi doesn’t have feathers, but he does have hair, and Koutarou loves Akaashi’s soft, silky hair, loves brushing it and taking care of it. Loves it when they shower together, too, and Akaashi allows Koutarou to softly massage shampoo into it.
Maybe even more than that he loves when Akaashi preens him; when he asks Koutarou to shift, just so he can softly preen his feathers. Akaashi’s fingers feel heavenly in Koutarou’s delicate plumage, and the clear affection in the action enhances that even more, makes Koutarou’s entire body sing whenever he feels Akaashi’s hands on his feathers.
He was a little scared, at first, that Akaashi would find it weird to be an owl shifter’s mate; humans don’t have the concept of mates for life, not in the way owls do, and a lot of owl behaviour is nonsensical to humans, seems odd to them, exotic.
There is a reason why owl shifters usually stick with other owl shifters when it comes to finding their partners.
Akaashi has been good about it from the first day on, though. He has even, softly, admitted to finding it endearing when Koutarou’s bird side comes out and he doesn’t try to suppress his owl mannerisms. Akaashi’s phone lock screen is a picture of Koutarou in bird form that Koutarou has caught him smiling at softly. (His home screen is a picture of the two of them together, cuddling, which is even better.)
Koutarou loves him so much he could burst with it.
He had known, when he’d first seen Akaashi, that he was the right one for him, and he’d been right.
Being together with Akaashi is the best thing that has ever happened to Koutarou, even better than starting to play volleyball. He is pretty sure marrying Akaashi is going to be even better than winning gold in the Olympics. And he is going to do both, that much he is sure of. (And when he isn’t, on the days on which he feels insecure and small, Akaashi stays with him, fills him with his unwavering confidence, until Koutarou’s own returns.)
Akaashi makes Koutarou feel like he is flying, even when he isn’t, and Koutarou knows, now, that he makes Akaashi feel the same way.